When the aluminum plant that Troutdale was built on finally died with a whimper in 2002, it was hard to hear over the din of east Multnomah County’s other troubles.
The casthouse’s red-hot pots of molten Reynolds aluminum had already been going dark for years. Hundreds of pink-slipped workers drifted to other jobs, some on Portland’s booming west side.
But the dying plant left a 50-year-old scar on the ground beneath it: 50 acres of soil poisoned by cryolite, scraped out of thousands of pots and poured into the plant’s swampy backyard near the Sandy River.
“It was the nature of the business,” said Teresa Carr of the Port of Portland, which bought the site in 2004. “We learn too late.”
By the time it closed, the former site of east county’s biggest employer was expected to spend decades as a fenced-in field.
It didn’t. Nine years later, the poisoned soil has been hauled to an upriver landfill, the groundwater pumped clean and the site reimagined as the home of a $130 million FedEx distribution hub. By 2015, employment at the 78-acre FedEx site, which opened last summer, is expected to grow from 750 to 1,000, more than Reynolds Metals at its peak.
This month, Troutdale’s decontaminated brownfield took the annual grand prize from the Pennsylvania-based Phoenix Awards Institute, the nation’s top honor for a reclaimed industrial site.
And boosters say Troutdale Reynolds Industrial Park hasn’t even hit its stride. The site has 288 acres of large industrial lots left to develop, enough for 3,500 total jobs.
“We expect there’ll be more investment, more jobs creation in Troutdale over the next few years,” Port of Portland real estate manager Joe Mollusky said last week. “It has tremendous potential.”
The remarkably rapid cleanup is a happy coda for Reynolds, the Virginia-based company that popularized kitchen foil, helped industrialize the Northwest and gave its name to east county’s school district before being bought by Pittsburgh-based Alcoa in 2000. And redevelopment is music to the ears of Troutdale-area leaders, who are eager to develop a tax and income base like those in Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro.
“The region is short on industrial lands,” said Mollusky, who worked with Alcoa and FedEx to manage the project for the Port. “The only other thing of this scale, really, is West Hayden Island.”
Mollusky credited the cleanup’s unusual speed to the publicly run Port’s relationship with Alcoa, which rented a Portland airport office for four years to oversee the brownfield.
“It would probably be still sitting there if we didn’t enter into this partnership,” Mollusky said.
“It was a great project,” said Mark Stiffler of Alcoa, which spent more than $50 million to meet its Superfund cleanup obligations on the site. Stiffler, Alcoa’s director of asset management, said the company decided to finish the job quickly to help Troutdale and to minimize Alcoa’s own risk.
“The faster we can move them through the process, overall the better we are,” Stiffler said.
So far, the Port says the cleanup and redevelopment have cost $223 million, much of it from Alcoa’s mandated Superfund payments. Among other things, the sum paid to destroy the 100-building Reynolds plant — the concrete was smashed to pebbles and used for on-site grading — to haul 26,000 tons of hazardous waste to an Arlington landfill and to reclaim a 16-acre lake for native species.
The Port, which had spent years lobbying Reynolds and Alcoa to start the cleanup quickly, bought the 700-acre site from Alcoa for $17.3 million.
Half the land will be preserved as open space. Of the rest, the agency has already built streets and utilities for 53 acres and hopes to develop what’s left in two more phases by 2017.
“The Port has invested lots of money to make it shovel-ready,” Carr said. “I think there’s a lot of optimism out there right now. I think we just have to capture that.”
South of the reclaimed industrial park are the Port-owned Troutdale Airport, Interstate 84 and, three miles away, Troutdale’s recently redeveloped downtown. The concrete planters on the sidewalk, gifts from the city of Portland, were rolled out by the parks department three years ago. City Hall is the split-level at the end of the block.
Craig Ward, Troutdale’s city manager, hopes the industrial park’s wealth will help Troutdale become a sort of Hood River for the west Columbia River Gorge.
“We’re interested in creating jobs for our residents,” Ward said. “We’re interested in having more residents, which will make our downtown and our commercial areas more vibrant and healthy.”
The redevelopment will boost tax rolls, too. After FedEx’s initial tax abatement expires in 2013, the city expects $328,000 a year in new property taxes, plus $1 million for the schools and other jurisdictions.
Local residents have embraced the site’s new mixed-use path, overlooking the Sandy to the park’s north and west. Last week, several visitors said they’re glad to welcome FedEx, which relocated from Swan Island in North Portland.
But they’re not holding their breath for a Troutdale industrial renaissance.
“That remains to be seen,” said Janet Miller of Gresham, a longtime resident who said she’d watched one economic plan after another fall apart for east county.
Don Barron, owner of River Trails Outdoors in downtown Troutdale, said he knew the Reynolds site well. He and his family had grazed dairy cows on the land in the early 1970s, carefully skirting the grasses they knew to be poisonous.
Did he think the 750 new jobs at FedEx would help his downtown business this year? Hard to say, Barron said.
“The economy’s bad,” he said with a shrug. “I had a good year last year. People say it’s going to be about the same.”